When I sat down to write this post my intention was to tell my deconversion story. Essentially, I was going to give you an idea of how I got from dreams of Christian professor to disbelieving the faith altogether and how it was Bible study that got me there. Instead of a Christian “testimony,” I was going to reverse the process. As I began, I quickly realized that the story doesn’t make sense unless you understand the place the Bible occupies in the Christian world. Just as the Bible derailed my faith, so to it derailed my post. To that end I decided that the place to start is not with me and my story but with the Bible and the thorny issues of biblical infallibility and inerrancy.
These twin concepts are central to Christian belief. Outside of the Christian cul-de-sac one would forgiven for not seeing why they are such a big deal. But if Christianity is worth believing it must have a basis of authority. The Catholic church bypasses this to a certain extent by maintaining that The Church is the authority and that only the priestly class is competent to understand the Bible and tell others what is says and means. In mainstream Protestant circles, though, biblical authority is the foundation the entire kingdom is built upon. Most of Protestantism is built upon the idea of a personal relationship with God. But, while the believer can speak directly to God, He usually only speaks back through the written format of the Bible. There is no need for a priestly class to interpret and teach, the believer can learn from, and learn about, The Almighty with a single handy volume readily available in almost every corner of the world and in almost any language. There is a reason that the Bible is the all-time world bestseller, it is God’s Word to each individual. The Achilles Heal of the Christian faith, however, is simple: unpick the authority of the Bible and the entire house of cards falls. Coming face-to-face with that, I suppose, is my deconversion story in a nutshell, but I will put more flesh on those bones in the posts to come.
So what, exactly, are inerrancy and infallibility? First, inerrancy. Matthew Barrett, writing on The Gospel Coalition website defined inerrancy this way: “The doctrine of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture is that, as a corollary of the inspiration of Scripture, the God-breathed Scriptures are wholly true in all things that they assert in the original autographs and therefore function with the authority of God’s own words.” There is a whole lot to unpack there and you can read more of what Matthew has to say about it by following the link above. For my part, I would like to note a few things. First, notice that Barrett identifies this as a “doctrine.” That means that this is not a hope or a wish, it is an essential truth necessary for the believer to ascent to. Second is the idea of “inspiration.” This isn’t the emotional response type of inspiration that may be brought about by beautiful sunset or by taking a scenic drive. This inspiration literally means that God was directing the writing of the Scriptures. There are different theories as to how this was accomplished. Did God inaudibly whisper the words into the ears of the writers? Did He put them in a trance and use their physical hands to write for Him? Did He create situations that moved the men to write in their own words but with the ultimate outcome mysteriously attributed to Him? All of these are real theories but, of course, no one really knows. The important thing is that God made it happen and the message is exactly what He wanted it to be. But here is where the fine print comes in. Notice that the Scripture were “wholly true” only in the autographs. For the non-pedantic Average Joes out there, that means that only the original writings can be fully trusted in this way. Two immediate problems: 1) that means that the Scriptures were open to inaccuracy in later editions (which is a big deal in itself and I will deal with that in a later post) and, 2) oh yeah, by the way, we don’t have the originals any more… they no longer exist. Another thing to note here: the Scriptures are true “in what they assert.” In other words, if the Bible says you should believe something then you should believe it. If the Bible tells a story, on the other hand, there is truth to be found in its ideas but not necessarily in the purported facts. The final point to observe here is that, because God directed the writing of the original Scriptures, they are as ultimately authoritative as if God appeared physically in front of you and spoke from His own mouth.
Infallibility is a slightly different animal. According to Stephen T. Davis (as quoted by Wikipedia), “The Bible is inerrant if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any topic whatsoever. The Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice.” Confused yet? Don’t worry, people spend their careers thinking about and writing this stuff. It reminds me of Bill Clinton’s deposition where he noted something along the lines of “it depends on what the definition of is is.” Bible scholars and theologians have spent centuries analyzing this stuff. To me, I feel like that’s part of the problem: if it takes that much effort to make something sensible, maybe it isn’t really sensible. The Average Joe version of the difference? The Bible is inerrant only if everything it says it true. The Bible is infallible if it tells you true things about what you should believe and do.
So how does it affect an aspiring theologian and Bible teacher to find that, not only have people been fighting about what the Bible tells us to believe for literal centuries, but also the Bible itself is unreliable? Unreliable how, you ask? That, Dear Reader, is for another time.